The plane carrying Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has landed in Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport, where he faces arrest.
It was originally intended to carry Navalny to Moscow's Vnukovo Airport on Sunday where crowds of supporters gathered, but was diverted to Sheremetyevo Airport.
Reuters staff saw Russian riot police make several detentions at Vnukovo Airport and clear out a crowd of people waiting there for Navalny to land.
Opposition politician Lubov Sobol could be seen being led away by policemen inside a terminal at Vnukovo in video footage published on social media.
Navalny had taken off from Berlin to return home for the first time since he was poisoned last summer, despite Russian authorities’ stated desire to arrest him and potentially jail him for years.
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Navalny announced Wednesday that he would return to Russia on Sunday after recovering in Germany from his poisoning in August with a nerve agent despite Russian authorities’ threats to put him behind bars again. He is expected to fly from Berlin to Moscow. On Thursday, Russia’s prison service said that he faces immediate arrest once he returns.
VIDEO: 🇩🇪🇷🇺 Russian opposition figure Alexei #Navalny, who has spent five months in Berlin recovering from a poisoning attack, is on a plane heading back to Moscow. Navalny risks being arrested on arrival, but told reporters on board that he was "an innocent person" pic.twitter.com/2qdX8UgSNP— AFP News Agency (@AFP) January 17, 2021
"This is the best moment in the last five months," he told reporters after he boarded the plane in the German capital, bound for Moscow. "I feel great. Finally, I'm returning to my home town."
Navalny, who has blamed his poisoning on the Kremlin, charged that Russian President Vladimir Putin was now trying to deter him from coming home with new legal motions. The Kremlin has repeatedly denied a role in the opposition leader’s poisoning.
At the end of December, the Federal Penitentiary Service, or FSIN, warned Navalny that he faced time in prison if he fails to immediately report to its office in line with the terms of a suspended sentence and probation he received for a 2014 conviction on charges of embezzlement and money laundering that he rejected as politically motivated. The European Court for Human Rights had ruled that his conviction was unlawful.
The FSIN said Thursday it issued an arrest warrant for Navalny after he failed to report to its office. The prison service, which has asked a Moscow court to turn Navalny’s 3 1/2-year suspended sentence into a real one, said it’s “obliged to take all the necessary action to detain Navalny pending the court’s ruling.”
Crowd at Vnukovo airport waiting for Navalny to arrive from Berlin. Many think he’s likely to get detained to before he gets here but are coming out to show support. pic.twitter.com/Oafvy0SvLr— Andrew Roth (@Andrew__Roth) January 17, 2021
Moscow’s Vnukovo Airport, where Navalny’s flight is due to land, last week said it is banning journalists from its terminal, citing epidemiological concerns. Many of his supporters were expected to try to gather in the terminal to welcome Navalny, if he is able to get through passport control without being arrested.
Security measures at the airport were heightened on Sunday, with several prisoner-transport trucks parked outside.
The independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta and opposition social media reported Sunday that several Navalny supporters in St. Petersburg had been removed from Moscow-bound trains or been prevented from boarding flights late Saturday and early Sunday, including the coordinator of his staff for the region of Russia’s second-largest city.
Navalny fell into a coma while aboard a domestic flight from Siberia to Moscow on August 20. He was transferred from a hospital in Siberia to a Berlin hospital two days later.
Labs in Germany, France and Sweden, and tests by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, established that he was exposed to a Soviet-era Novichok nerve agent.
Russian authorities insisted that the doctors who treated Navalny in Siberia before he was airlifted to Germany found no traces of poison and have challenged German officials to provide proof of his poisoning. They refused to open a full-fledged criminal inquiry, citing a lack of evidence that Navalny was poisoned.
Last month, Navalny released the recording of a phone call he said he made to a man he described as an alleged member of a group of officers of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, who purportedly poisoned him in August and then tried to cover it up. The FSB dismissed the recording as fake.